With bloggers continuing to churn out posts regarding the proper role of social media within public relations, I’ve been thinking a lot about scalability, and decided it was time for a post dedicated to what I see as a fundamental problem in the evolution of social media as a communications channel. This is particularly true for large companies, as they struggle to identify, review, manage, and respond to mentions of their products and brands. Social media “experts” are in danger of over promising the value of social media, while underestimating the ability to scale current successes to a broad audience.
Despite the chatter, “listening” and “relationships” are not new concepts–at least, they should not be. Any PR professional worth his or her salt should know that you cannot communicate with an audience without first listening to what their concerns are, and you cannot build trust without establishing relationships. All successful PR, from the time the term was first coined, has been based on listening and relationships.
Companies have been told, scolded, and begged to listen, so they are. Some are even responding to complaints, and receiving great critical acclaim for doing so. And social media consultants everywhere are pointing to the results, and saying “see, we told you–this is good for business.” And it is…until it isn’t.
So when isn’t it good for business? It isn’t good when a standard is established for service that is not scalable. Most of social media isn’t scalable, at least not as it is practiced today–including blogger outreach, and responding to customer concerns on outlets like Twitter. As many have pointed out, social media and social networks are based on relationships, correct? So, how does one square this with Dunbar’s number? At its core, Dunbar’s number (also known as the Dunbar Corollary) states that the upper limit of the number of individuals one can have a relationship with is 150.
Calling customer interactions “relationships” cheapens the definition of relationship, and implies a level of knowledge that does not exist. Dunbar’s number, in theory, would limit a company’s engagement to one customer service person for every 150 customers. This is particularly important when you consider maintaining the level of customer service that has been established by companies like Comcast and Dell, who are monitoring Twitter and proactively responding and solving customer issues in very short order.
Key elements to solving these problems successfully have been: 1) a rapid identification of the mention of the problem, and 2) the ability of the person monitoring to quickly fix or solve the issue. For the first, you need to be actively and aggressively monitoring your brand–no problem with the right tools. For the second, you need a person who has the ability to cut through the red tape, and is placed in a position to know enough about multiple aspects of the business to make the calls to get things fixed. This is the part that will be difficult to scale, without it sliding back to the same fine level of customer service many of us encounter today, because it requires a fairly high-level person.
Handling the volume now might be okay, but shift 10 percent of the customer complaints languishing in phone trees over to Twitter and you’re going to have a lot more volume to handle. (Comcast reportedly already has 12 employees monitoring Twitter, and Twitter is still in the early adopter phase.) That additional volume needs to be handled by individuals at a fairly high level. Customer service has just moved from entry-level to C-suite.
Here’s another heretical (in Web 2.0 terms) thought: maybe a company shouldn’t respond to every complaint from customers. Some of the people complaining just like to complain. These customers will never be happy, no matter what you do. How much time, money, and energy will be sunk into these cases? I’m thinking specifically of the couple who managed to complain their way through 5 of 6 cruises they took. Each time, they’d post their complaints on forums, and each time, the cruise line would offer some form of compensation. The complaints ranged from minor to fairly problematic, but each time, there was a complaint. The cruise line, wisely in my estimation, finally said “enough.” They banned the couple from cruising with them.
One other observation: brands responding on Twitter have a built-in meter to judge the significance of a tweet–click the link, see how many followers someone has, boom, instant metric to determine if you’re responding to a lone voice in the wilderness or an influencer. Many in social media like to proclaim that this era of openness is a great leveler, and that this pseudo-direct democracy means all voices are equal. It isn’t so, and never will be. One of the primary metrics clients ask our analysts at CustomScoop is the size/influence of a blog/blogger or the prominence of a person on Twitter. The fact that companies responding on Twitter have the capacity to quickly determine influence means that those with the most significance will be responded to first.
For social media as a PR or Marketing function to succeed, it must be scalable, from both the internal PR side (how a company identifies/pitches bloggers) and from a customer service side (how they respond to customer issues identified through blogs and social media). The way things stand; it isn’t scalable, at least not without great expense. Part of the promise of social media has been that it is a low-cost way to learn from customers and address their issues, and that cost factor has played a major role in social media’s adoption. If costs start skyrocketing, there will be a leveling, then a diminishing, return on investment for companies.